February 25, 2013
Perhaps the dateline should read “January 10, 1959” because, rummaging around in the Friends Journal archives, I stumbled across a piece by Howard H. Brinton entitled “The Place of Quakerism in Modern Christian Thought.” It was published in two parts in the January 10 and January 17, 1959 issues. It is what he says about fundamentalism in this piece that I want to lift up.
An aside: one of the many benefits of a Friends Journal subscription is access to the Friends Journal archives, which have been digitized back to 1955, the year of its founding. (It was formed out of the merger of The Friend [1827-1955] and Friends Intelligencer [1847-1955] as the Hicksite/Orthodox schism was being healed.) There are rich treasures in these archives. A subscription will bring you much more than current issues.
In this piece on “The Place of Quakerism in Modern Christian Thought,” Brinton thinks broadly about the theology of Friends in the context of other Christian denominations. He discusses “three main trends in current Protestant thought–fundamentalism, liberalism, and the so-called neo-orthodoxy (new orthodoxy),” and explores Quakerism in relation to each. At the end, he declares that early Friends “took a position between the two extremes of modern liberalism and neo-orthodoxy.” What he makes of that and why he says it are worth reading, but I was especially struck at what he said about “fundamentalism.” At bottom he argues that those who take a fundamentalist or evangelical line within Quakerism part company with the most striking and life-giving insights of early Friends. With permission from Friends Journal, I’ll quote what he says in full:
“Fundamentalism must be considered even though there are probably few fundamentalists in this audience, because it is the most dynamic and rapidly growing movement within Protestant Christianity, and elements of it exist in most Protestant creeds. About one-third of those under the name of Friends in America can be so classified. Furthermore, the struggle between modernism and fundamentalism, so characteristic of the early years of the twentieth century, still continues, especially in the mission field. To defend what they consider to be fundamental doctrines of Christianity, such as the fall of Adam, the virgin birth, the blood atonement, biblical miracles, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the second coming of Christ, the fundamentalists take their stand on the infallibility of the whole Bible. The Bible from cover to cover and verse by verse is believed to be fully inspired by God as a special revelation of truth unlike any other before or after. No other guide such as the light within, or reason or conscience can be accepted.
“The Society of Friends was certainly not fundamentalist at its beginning. Friends held that the Bible must be understood as a whole and not through texts taken out of their context. The Spirit which produced the Bible, they thought, still works in the hearts of men, revealing new truth and new aspects of old truth, so the biblical canon is never closed. The Bible is obviously not all on the same level. Even the fundamentalist selects what suits him best. When a fundamentalist supports fighting or the use of oaths, he resorts to the Old Testament and ignores the New. He preaches against drinking, smoking, and dancing, which are not mentioned by Jesus, and lays less emphasis on insincerity, pride, and hatred, sins which Jesus especially condemns. The fundamentalist does not realize that several theological points of view are set forth in the New Testament, such as those of the synoptic gospels, of John, of Paul, of Peter in his sermon at Pentecost, of James, of the authors of Hebrews and Revelation. All these show differences, as well as important similarities.
“The Quaker doctrines of the sacraments and of peace can only be upheld by an attitude which accepts the spirit of the New Testament as a whole, rather than stressing the literal meaning of certain isolated texts. As for the acceptance of Christ’s atonement for our sins, a central doctrine not only of fundamentalism but of Protestantism in general, the early Friends believed that Christ’s death and resurrection were of primary importance as a turning point in history, but almost the whole emphasis of Quaker preaching and writing has been on the saving power of the Christ within, without which Christ’s death would have been insufficient (Romans 5: 10). It was on the necessity of the continuing work of the Spirit of Christ in the heart that Friends broke most sharply with Protestantism, which held that Christ’s redeeming work had been finished on the cross. The saving “blood of Christ” was, for George Fox, the light within. As for the second coming, Fox said to those who expected it in his day, “Christ has already come” in your hearts.”